Days after the first trial for crimes against humanity in Syria’s long-running civil war concluded, the mood among Syrian activists has passed from celebration to muted determination.
The trial in the western German city of Koblenz was the first time a court anywhere had convicted a regime insider on charges related to post-2011 repression. It won’t be the last. But the road to that guilty verdict was long and uncertain. And even with that victory, the regime still endures, the torture dungeons remain and millions of Syrians are still living in exile. The sweetness of the verdict has a bitter edge.
Yet last week’s judgment jailing Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian regime intelligence officer, for crimes against humanity profoundly matters. It is the first time a senior member of the Assad regime has been held accountable for murder and torture in the years after the 2011 uprising.
It also highlights the importance of gathering evidence inside Syria, even when there is only the slim prospect of justice. The Koblenz trial was the first time the evidence of the Syrian military photographer known as Caesar was used in a court of law.
And it demonstrates the importance of innovative legal methods in prosecuting some of the worst crimes around the world. The courthouse in Koblenz has become a testing ground for the principle of universal jurisdiction, by which countries can prosecute international crimes even if they didn’t take place within their own borders.
Yet the trial was far from perfect and Raslan’s was, at best, an imperfect first prosecution for Syria’s crimes.
Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia who was also indicted for crimes against humanity, Raslan was not at the apex of the power structure. He was a mid-level colonel who defected from the regime the year after the uprising began.
Nor was he a regime insider arrested while still committing crimes. On the contrary, Raslan had defected, aided the opposition, been granted asylum in Germany and was only investigated by the German police after he described his role inside the regime apparatus in an attempt to help their investigations into another Syrian official.
That has led to the criticism that Raslan, far from being the start of a wave of prosecutions that holds the regime accountable, is little more than a fall-guy, a man who defected from the regime into the hands of the regime’s enemies and is now being punished. It has led to some calling into question the whole rationale for this and other pending prosecutions.
German courts do not have the ability to arrest serving members of the Syrian army or intelligence services. The only ones they are able to bring to justice are those who have already defected.
Yet the value of the prosecutions of former regime insiders goes beyond one case. Building momentum against the regime will require many cases, stacked, brick by brick, into a legal and political wall. It will require much more harrowing testimony and many more arrests. It will require imperfect prosecutions.
Moreover, the argument that those prosecuted will, by virtue of having left Syria, have already turned their backs on the regime rests on a major assumption – that the regime insiders left because they stopped believing in the regime.
That is not always the case. Some only fled because they believed the regime was crumbling or because they thought they may have a better life in Europe, blending in with migrants fleeing the repression they themselves had a part in. The idea that everyone who sought asylum was repentant is wrong.
Has the Koblenz trial made it less likely that defectors will leave the regime? Undoubtedly. Many who might have fled and revealed regime crimes will reconsider, afraid of ending up in jail themselves.
And yet those who wanted to defect have had ample opportunity to do so. It seems far-fetched to believe that defectors would stand with the regime through years of war, only to walk away with Assad’s victory assured.
Does it mean that some who have already defected may now lie low, afraid of implicating themselves in crimes? That is likely, and ought to be more of a concern. There is a lot of information on the inner workings of the regime still to be revealed and defectors will be able to fill in some of the blanks.
Yet the idea that figures like Raslan should not be prosecuted, or that justice ought to wait until all the information on the regime’s crimes has been collected or – even worse – the regime itself is no more, is far-fetched. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The Koblenz trial is certainly imperfect, but the first step on a much longer road to justice often is.
Yes, the Assad regime remains in place. Yes, someone who was only part of the torture machine has been convicted.
But that should not detract from the enormous victory that was won in Germany, the result of years of determined and meticulous hard work on the part of Syrian activists and German investigators.
A reckoning – albeit slow – for the atrocities of the Assad regime has begun. Step by step, year by year, the road to justice for what happened in Syria will need to be walked, before it winds its way, with the inevitability of the arc of history, to the presidential palace in Damascus.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.